Caroline Hickman: Anxiety and anger are psychologically healthy responses to climate crisis
The UK-based philosopher, psychotherapist and researcher has made it her mission to help people cope with the emotional fallout of the climate crisis
What was your motivation to study climate anxiety?
I had been working with young people following trauma and started to notice similarities in what a lot of people were saying around climate change, that they had been traumatised in childhood by finding out about the climate crisis.
I began talking with young people and children all over the world about climate anxiety. I would simply ask ‘How do you feel about climate change?’, just exploring their feelings in general. I started to learn about eco anxiety. What I noticed most was that young people were talking about anxiety in different ways than older generations.
When you are older, you are feeling the grief of what you have done before. Now, when you are young, you are feeling the grief of what is to come. This is the biggest difference between anxiety experienced.
I really wanted to support young people to get their voices heard. A lot of the time in the media there are many negative comments about young people – that you are ‘snowflakes’ or ‘just worrying too much’.
I have heard that!
That stuff makes me cross! I want to tell the older generations: ‘No, you do not understand what it is like”. We need to have empathy for what it is like growing up in this world, watching these problems without having the power to vote, the power to change things. It is a failure of empathy, a failure to understand how it feels to be young.
What I also noticed through my research was that children all over the world were telling me similar things. The cultural difference was less important than the age difference. There is higher global understanding across young people, which more and more older generations are gradually waking up to.
This is why I was so keen on researching. I had only spoken with 400 young people in my personal research and I knew this would not make a significant impact on the world. But ten thousand young people? That will make a difference.
There is a lot of talk on social media right now about young people feeling powerless in the face of climate change because governments take little action to address it. Personally, we can only do as much.
Absolutely, and that was what our research found.
We did a poll with 10,000 children and young people across ten different countries: Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Portugal, the UK and the US.
We were not surprised to see the scale of emotional distress but what stunned us was, for example, the impact on daily functioning, with 45 percent of young people saying that anxiety affected their eating, concentration, going to work or school, sleeping, playing, having fun and relationships. That is nearly half of the young people involved!
Eight out of ten worried that climate change was startling. This is also very high.
However, what really got to us was the impact of these feelings on their cognition: 55 percent of young people believe they won’t have the same opportunities their parents had.
I feel like our generation looks at the future in a totally different way. We have different motivations to get an education or whether to have children.
You are absolutely right. Our generation did not even have to think about this. We might have had our reasons for choosing to not have children, the difference for you is that this is human caused climate change, not a natural disaster.
Three out of four young people said the future was frightening. 75 percent! Four out of ten did not want to have children. Over half thought that humanity was doomed.
Nearly half, 48 percent, felt they had been dismissed or ignored by others when they tried to talk about climate change.
We also asked: ‘Do you believe that your government or other governments are taking care of the planet?’
58 percent thought their government was dismissing their distress, 61 percent thought the government was lying about the impact of their actions, 65 percent thought the government was failing young people.
A lot of people say that they won’t take climate action because ‘it will not change anything anyway’.
That is nihilism, which is a form of denial. It is a very powerful defense mechanism.
What would you say to those who think that?
I would say: ‘I understand that you feel bad.’
In our data we found that 29 percent felt indifferent towards climate action, which is what you are talking about. 42 percent felt grief, 43 percent felt hurt. At the other end, 67 percent felt sad and afraid while 62 percent felt anxious.
With nihilism and hopelessness you can collapse into indifference, it is an emotional shutdown. When feelings are just so big and overwhelming, and you don’t know how to deal with them, you can disconnect emotionally so you do not feel anything. You put your feelings in a box, in another room and you go about your life without feeling bad. People do it because of trauma.
All people, when powerless and trapped, can dissociate. It is like you leave your body. You can almost watch something happening to your body and not be able to react fully because your emotions are disconnected. It is a way of saving yourself, a psychological defence against the trauma and the horror of what is happening.
This is understandable if you are powerless and being assaulted. The problem with climate change is that when we disconnect and disassociate we are not feeling the anxiety – and without the anxiety, we will not act. If we do not act, we won’t save the planet.
So people like to think that we are not part of this disaster. But we are connected to the planet which is something people seem to forget.
We are part of nature. We are natural creatures. The best way to reduce climate anxiety in children and young people is to increase it in politicians. If they felt more anxious, they would act more and we would feel better. So we have to increase climate anxiety among them.
We all have to do whatever we can about climate change, but while we are doing this we could also address and support the anxiety that young people are feeling.
There is hope, because young people can feel reassured, protected, valued and positive if they are listened to. We need to make sure their concerns are taken seriously. Alongside with hope, we need to show respect, validation and understanding to young people.
Invalidating climate anxiety is a big problem….
Yes, invalidating and dismissing. I would interpret it like this to adults: what young people think is that their future is about to be doomed, so they feel desperate, suicidal, despairing, hopeless, angry and this is a completely natural reaction.
I remembered myself, aged twelve, being introduced to climate change in science class. It was six, nearly seven years ago. My Russian, somewhat conservative family did not understand the concept of climate change. I had nightmares about icebergs melting. I really thought we were doomed, but the topic of climate anxiety was not really talked about at the time. How can someone spot climate anxiety in oneself or others?
I would say that you notice climate anxiety once you care about the planet, about animals, yourself and your family. That, alongside information about all the climate catastrophes creates the combination whereby I would define climate anxiety.
It is a psychologically healthy response to feel anguish, anxiety and anger, because the reality is that we are facing these things. Maybe not in the next three years, but beyond that it is not looking good. It is this awareness which wakes you up.
How can we avoid fixating on the grief and depression part of healing climate anxiety?
That is a very good question!
Mentioned in this interview:
Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places
Inner City Books, 2003
164 pp. $25.00
Donna J. Haraway
Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene
Duke University Press, 2016
312 pp. $27.95
One of my favourite books is called Swamplands of the Soul, the best book ever by James Hollis. In it, there is a chapter on debilitating emotions like anger, despair, grief and loneliness. What he talks about, and this is what I want to talk about, is how all of these feelings could be seen as negative while actually they all bring something really important to the richness of our emotional landscape.
Living without depression and despair is as crazy as trying to live without winter. It is a part of our natural emotional cycle. It is completely valid, considering how many sad things are happening in the world. However, you also do not want to be trapped in them so they are overwhelming or spoil your capacity for joy in life. What you need to do is allow these feelings to run through you. Be kind to yourself, tell yourself these feelings make perfect sense and you are experiencing them because you care. It is the price you pay for caring.
It might sound cynical, but once you are over the grief, climate change is not going to solve itself. How do we exactly move past that? Does it not bring us back to denial?
No, it brings you to resilience and it brings you to radical hope. Radical hope says: “well, we might be going off a cliff, it might all be over in a few years, but I am going down fighting. I’m going to live my life fully, as much as I can, in the time that I have”.
So when you change the anxiety into resilience, then are you able to push through and fight?
Yes. Let’s say you only have a year left. Sometimes people would collapse into depression, but sometimes they would process this and say: ‘Well, all I have is a year. I am going to live that year very well and be close to the people that I love’. They travel, fulfil dreams and live their lives very fully. I am not minimising the grief, but you can form that grief into something meaningful.
I find looking at climate change through this lens very inspiring. We all have limited days on this planet, with the climate crisis or without it.
We really do. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow, our lives could end suddenly, horribly. Nobody wants this, but there are no promises, no guarantees.
Living fully means beating the depression instead of collapsing into it, but also not going into denial by saying, ‘It’ll be fine!’
Caroline Hickman with her dog, Murphy
My dog Murphy died this summer. He was the love of my life. I had him for fourteen years and we had the best life together. We would be walking in the mountains, he would get stuck in the river and I would have to go in and get him out. But fourteen for a dog is like being a hundred years old and I knew he was not going to live beyond this.
I received a phone call from the vet in the beginning of July. She said: ‘Well, you know, you could put him to sleep now’.
I said: ‘No, because he is still happy, he is not in pain, he eats, walks, and swims.’
I was in terrible grief, I cried a lot. And then I thought: ‘he has to have the best week of his life. If all he has left is a week, it is going to be a good week.’
So I started cooking him organic roast chickens, buying him more balls and taking him to the river every night for a swim.
I bought him all the rubbish dog treats that he loved. He had organic roasted chicken five times before he died.
The only way I could deal with my grief at his loss was to say ‘we are going to have the most brilliant time however long it is.’ I can feel the grief now, when I talk about him, and I could feel it then. But I can also feel the joy and the love because it is an honour to grieve him. He was such a good dog and I loved him, so my grief will be as big as my love. He had a good death, he was not in pain and he is buried in the corner of my sister’s field. I am proud of myself that we had a good time together.
This is what we have to do with climate change. Donna Haraway, who is a talented writer, in Staying with the Trouble says:
“Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations.
“Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.”
All of us have to hold that middle ground between collapsing into the apocalypse and living in the fantasy we will be rescued. Neither of the extremes are true, and they are both attempts at getting away from uncertainty, insecurity and vulnerability. We must do all that we can with radical hope, without knowing whether or not it will be enough.
I think I have one last question for you, which was kind of just answered: do you believe there is hope for our planet?
Yes I do, even though I have just been talking about how bad it is, I do believe there is hope, and I will tell you a number of reasons why. One is young people like you who are bothered to do this work, to contact me, talk and write about it. To distribute this information. You give me hope. I have met some amazing young people who give me help, organise themselves into groups and resilient circles, supporting each other. Going to the streets on strikes, it really is phenomenal. So what you do is great.
Court cases give me hope. The six young people in Portugal who are suing 33 European governments in the European Court of Human Rights. They are arguing under the Human Rights Act which is important. There are so many good people out there who are all involved because they care.
More than this I believe in the human spirit to change. I am a psychotherapist, so I have worked for many years with people who have been struggling with problems and I have seen many of them find a way to turn their lives around. As they do that, it can feel like a miracle.
So they transform anxiety towards action and radical hope.
Absolutely, you said it perfectly. What they do is integrate the happy parts of themselves with the sad. The despair with the joy, the grief with the rage. They learn to love themselves, to accept themselves, to heal their old wounds, and to live life more fully with joy and wisdom.
I have seen extraordinary courage in people. To see that transformation in people even when they have come through the worst experiences like childhood abuse, trauma and betrayal – that gives me hope because I have seen humanity can do it.